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Ahead of the Curve: Public Companies Whose CEOs Supported Gay Rights From the Start


Companies like Apple, Goldman Sachs, and Ben & Jerry's were supporting gay rights long before Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman flipped her position on same-sex marriage.

It's unlikely that JCPenney (NYSE:JCP) anticipated the amount of controversy that would result from hiring an openly-gay spokesperson. The department store was trying to reinvent itself when it brought on the incredibly likeable and charismatic Ellen DeGeneres to breathe new life into its outdated brand. Far from polarizing, DeGeneres is a mainstream figure, having hosted an NBC (NASDAQ:CMCSA) talk show for the last nine years, while also serving as a judge on the Fox (NYSE:NWS) hit American Idol, and appearing in commercial campaigns from American Express (NYSE:AXP) and CoverGirl (NYSE:PG).

So Ellen seemed like a pretty safe bet for JCPenney -- a "no-brainer," in fact -- said the company's CEO Ron Johnson in a CBS This Morning interview.

But the endorsement was the wrong move, cried the One Million Moms organization, a project of the American Family Association, which threatened to boycott JCPenney unless the retailer dropped DeGeneres. JCPenney not only refused to cave to their demands -- Johnson sought to more closely align his company with gay rights, saying it "shares the same values" as its celebrity sponsor.

Last century, when public opinion was still far from being on the side of gay rights, the last place one may have expected to find forward-thinking on the issue would be inside an aerospace and defense corporation. That's why, in 1999, Boeing (NYSE:BA) made headlines for being an early adopter of same-sex domestic partner benefits for employees.

A decade later, Boeing took up the legislative fight to extend domestic partnership rights in its state. Joining a Washington-based corporate coalition that included Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Nike (NYSE:NKE), Puget Sound Energy, RealNetworks (NASDAQ:RNWK), Vulcan Inc., and, later, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), Boeing publicly supported the state's 2009 ballot measure, Referendum 71, that turned a domestic-partnership bill into law.

A joint statement from the coalition read: "Overturning this law would undo years of equal rights progress made in Washington state. We do not believe that this step backward would be in the best interest for the future of our state."

Referendum 71 passed and set a precedent for a state's voters approving a gay rights measure in the voting booth.

Goldman Sachs
Back in February, Lloyd Blankfein made an announcement that floored pro- and anti-gay camps alike. The much-maligned Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) CEO became the "Wall Street face of marriage equality" when he signed on to be the Human Rights Campaign's first national corporate spokesman on the issue.

But that endorsement didn't come "without a price," Blankfein reportedly told Out on the Street, a gay rights advocacy group based in the financial sector. When speaking to the group last week, Blankfein revealed that his firm has already lost one client. "There was some adverse reaction by someone," Blankfein said. "They didn't want to continue a relationship that they had with us in money management."

Blankfein opted to protect the client's anonymity but his remarks suggest the account was a high profile one: "[I]f you heard the name it wouldn't surprise you," he said.

Marriage equality isn't exactly a new passion of Blankfein's. Before lending his name to the Human Rights Campaign, he'd successfully lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass a same-sex marriage law last summer. And, as an employer, Blankfein has created policies that reimburse Goldman employees for extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits.

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